It is easy to debate the usefulness of commenting on the 2019 State of the Union Address. In a media sphere mostly concerned with who said what in a fleeting instance, what is the importance of the decorum and epideictic rhetoric surrounding the occasion of the State of the Union and its “strength”?
Donald Trump closed with a familiar, politically-theological aura of American exceptionalism – “We must keep America first in our hearts. We must keep freedom alive in our souls, and we must always keep faith in America’s destiny — that one nation, under God, must be the hope and the promise and the light and then glory among all the nations of the world.” As Jason DeSanto, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University has analyzed, the ritualized aesthetics we are accustomed to from such speeches took an odd turn this year. While Trump pointed out many exemplary individuals throughout his speech there was a recurring theme of victims rather than just heroes.
In DeSanto’s view, this move illustrates Trump’s efforts to underscore the threats the U.S. faces, threats that he in particular has saved the nation from, such as war with North Korea. The focus on such a self-aggrandizing ethos comes at a time when Trump is facing heat from Robert Mueller’s Special Council Investigation. DeSanto reads this rhetoric as purposefully framing to destabilize the rule of law whenever its gaze is upon Trump. Thus, the affective message is: America is under attack, and you need me to save you.
In the ancient world, Aristotle associated epideixis with praising and blaming in the present of public ceremonies, contrasting it with forensic rhetoric (relating to justice and the past) and deliberative rhetoric (relating to the future). I won’t belabor re-covering the numerous fact-checking pieces produced last week. The present ceremony in last week’s address was marked by women in white and the frequent chanting of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” These chants particularly erupted after Trump’s censure of socialism and his claim that America will never be a socialist country – “we are born free and we will stay free.”
I want to do more here than merely blame the banality of reductive chanting that conflates congressional decorum with the behavior of sports fans, nor simply convey the kind of jaded irrelevance that many feel about current politics, a jadedness evident among my university students last week, where only about one “and a half” of my college students in multiple class sections of twenty-four students bothered to tune in. Thinking of them, I want to focus here on the importance of aesthetics in framing and identification within the rhetorical situation, particularly as it infuses a longer lineages of ideas about “freedom.”
Following Irving Goffman’s Frame Analysis, George Lakoff has frequently asserted that traditional liberals who rely on Enlightenment notions of rationality are simply ineffective in 21st century politics due to the physical reality of metaphorical structures or “world-views” burned into neural-pathways in our brains. Such metaphorical structures create and support frames of thinking that manifest physically.
If you want to persuade people or effect change, you would need to change the frame in a calculated enough way to not “break the circuit” or simply not be understood. Framing is essentially doing the ancient rhetorical work of taxonomic analysis, which — rather than relying on cognitive science — relied on what Roman rhetoricians called invention (inventio).
Following rhetoricians like Lakoff and affect theorists, I frequently tell my students that, while I willingly and regularly teach logical fallacies at a state university where well-intentioned syllabus guidelines demand it, inoculation theories of “logic” do not alone create citizens capable of becoming informed voters (which is obviously part of the student “product” state universities are supposed to produce). One must really understand something about aesthetics, especially in its European genealogy, because history has shown the supposedly universalist ideas of Enlightenment thinkers to have a shelf life. Aesthetics underwrite the decorum of founding mythologies of nations.
We need to understand that shelf life to understand how groups are framed culturally by a shared past that develops the linguistic codes through which we come to articulate what Lakoff calls our “world views.” One quickly learns, for example, that Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Burke, and Friedrich Schiller’s interest in aesthetics were all clearly tied both to politics and the emergent State in the wake of the Battle of the Books, or the debate between the ancients and the moderns that erupted in the revolutionary movements in the 18th century.
Schiller’s letters on aesthetics (1795) in particular espoused “progressivist” models of cultivation associated with the celebration of European, disinterested rationality by translating Immanuel Kant’s thoughts on “Perpetual Peace” into aesthetics. Filled with metaphorical frames of machine-like imagery of production, Schiller articulated an emergent idealism supporting the claim that aesthetics are about the freedom that only a subject who had been lifted out of ‘Nature’ could participate in.
That freedom of aesthetic play would employ variations of content to hold in place the infinity of one’s form, to give the flux of temporality to balance and situate what we might call the artistic “soul’s” infinity, which would otherwise dissipate into the spiritual ether.
The “purely” creative act (cultivated invention) would, in a sense, ground the life of the properly civilized ‘man’. The civilized man would have subdued and wrenched himself out of feminine ‘nature’, creating instead a differently feminized ‘object’: Beauty. The disinterested contemplation of Beauty would, to the man capable of moving beyond mere “sensuousness” of the “savage,” signify both his cultivation and his freedom.
This freedom would eventually be from both the duty and obedience to laws of the State, as well as morality — for a properly cultivated individual would no longer need the constraints of morality and law. Sovereignty would be the self-legislating self, occupied by disinterested aesthetic “play.” The “debasement” of western “civilization” mourned by traditionalists and conservatives throughout the twentieth-century, over and against the expanded inclusion of those once thought too “feminine” and too “savage” to attain such rationality, partly has its roots in the liberal discourse of individualism and exceptionalism.
The “truly cultivated” — one might say, cosmopolitan — would be able to accept the gifted African, Indian, or Feminine body so long as the rational capacity and genius of its mind had “risen above” its animal and “natural” state to engage its rational form of infinite capacity and potential: Pure presence! The importance of aesthetics to politics lies in the manifestation of presence.
Lecturing on aesthetics in the 1820s, G.W.F. Hegel echoed Schiller when he opened: “We may, however, begin at once by asserting that artistic beauty stands higher than nature. For the beauty of art is the beauty that is born again, that is — of the mind!” (4). Hegel quickly qualified his argument by asserting that “higher” is an inappropriate word because it spatializes the imagination yet the mind, which is the only thing capable of determining truth, is not spatial.
But as Lakoff shows, metaphors of spatiality take on emotional and values-laden content over time. Worldview is physical. What he does not address is how groups of people inflect the interpretation of metaphors. He does however say, in a 2008 lecture on Moral Politics, that conservatives and progressives can recognize their respective frames as politically “other,” and that the Enlightenment valuation of ‘Reason’ so often employed by liberals actually hurts them politically because it values sequential logic over the work of framing when it comes to voting and getting things done.
Deep frames, as Lakoff describes them, are more structurally impactful on our behavior than surface frames (“cup” = mug, glass, verre, tasse, etc.). The deep framing of the modern Western world view has traditionally included the narrative of “rising up” toward reason, out of nature, toward autonomous sovereignty. This deep framing operates in the rights-based individualism underwriting liberalism.
Populism was always a threat to this “elective” structure because it gave aesthetic justification only to the “sensuous” and not to the cultivated mind that had mastered nature by subordinating “her” to the virtualized image-object of Beauty. Obviously, the framing preserved here is up-down image schema associated with power through capacity to rational freedom over nature and implicitly gendered to subordinate the feminine.
So, while the cosmopolitan view could, through its own “cultivated” rationality, perceive the intellectual brilliance of a person beyond their physical features (“not man,” “savage” –literally territorialized as the edge), a deeper frame preserved the ways these structures were racialized and gendered. The State, of course, in the European aesthetics I am describing, was meant to be a temporary promotion of objectivity, a disinterested apparatus that might give laws and administer justice to those who were not rational enough to no longer need laws or morality — and this is as far back as Schiller, I am not discussing Nietzsche here, but readers of him will see the lineage at work.
The aesthetics of populism that accompanied the chanting of “U.S.A!” last week are nothing new. The famous White House party for Andrew Jackson’s 1829 inauguration (depicted above) is but one example of populist rowdiness long before Hillary Clinton’s famous “basket of deplorables” comment, which has come to signify the elitist leanings underneath the current Democratic party.
Walter Benjamin famously referred to fascism as “the aestheticization of politics,” but what he meant by this was a critique of the already idealist assumptions accompanying aesthetics, not the mere plasticity of arts. The mystification of the Art’s “aura” as described in his famous “Work of Art int he Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is rooted in Marx’s critique of Idealism and its neglect of the role of material resources in history that informed his dialectical materialism.
In Marx, the aesthetics discussion was turned into a discussion of commodities and fetishism rooted in Charles de Brosses and what would emerge as Anthropology. “Art for Art’s Sake” was rooted in the Enlightenment ideal of a pure aesthetics unbound to morality, just as Lautréamont’s Chants of Maldoror, Nietzsche, and later the surrealists would challenge the discourse of moral “sensibility” in 19th century literature, so fascinated as it was with perceiving the “genius” of the ancient Greek’s “mind.”
But in Marx too you have the pull of a salvation narrative toward the “end” of the State through the development of various forms of accumulated capital, and it was his sensitivity toward the physical in his interest in materialism that has made Marx an important thinker for overcoming racism based on biological mystification. At the same time, it is the cosmopolitan impulse still rooted in Enlightenment rationality that maintains the ideals of the project while progressively casting off archaic assumptions about racial or gender difference.
This is, of course, all done in the name of “the State,” in the name of a more “inclusive” body of citizens. This is the image of American freedom aestheticized by the Statue of Liberty. This is why it is so antithetical to many Americans’ values to see a wall and the militarization of the Southern border.
Elias Canetti opened his famous book, Crowds and Power (1960), with a discussion of “open” and “closed” crowds. What we saw presented in the aesthetics of the State of the Union last week was disunity framed by the gaze of the cameras, which necessarily impose form. My students’ lack of interest is telling here because it is a lack of interest in the media framing the event as well. But for those who watched “the show,” one of Canetti’s early remarks comes to mind.
The most important occurrence within the crowd is the discharge. Before this the crowd does not actually exist; it is the discharge which creates it. This is the moment when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal. (17)
The “U.S.A!” chants were ultimately a failed attempt at discharge. The political tension so many feel today is illustrated aesthetically by the clear inability for the State of the Union to provide discharge, what aesthetes sometimes discuss as catharsis. Epideictic speeches, ceremonies, are supposed to unite the present. Of course, they often do so through mythical retellings of the past as part of political glorification.
Interestingly, as multiple news sources have commented, “U.S.A!” chants also erupted as women dressed in white broke their standoffish presentation to applaud Trump’s acknowledgement of how far women have come in the century since achieving the right to vote. Such eventual and progressivist rhetoric thus basks in the political mythology of the Enlightenment values persistent in the State. Just wait your turn and you might eventually be deemed rational and human enough to join the ranks of civilized men. Glory be.
Giorgio Agamben has, over the past several years, traced glory’s aesthetic place in politics, an extension of Michel Foucault’s work on the dispositif. In The Kingdom and the Glory, Agamben links the aesthetic of glory to the poetic making of religiosity.
Perhaps glorification is not only that which best fits the glory of God but is itself, as effective rite, what produces glory; and if glory is the very substance of God and the true sense of his economy, then it depends upon glorification in an essential manner and, therefore, has good reason to demand it through reproaches and injunctions. (226)
Alexander Weheliye, in Habeas Viscus, gives a powerful critique of the absence of discursive attention to racialized assemblages in the work of both Foucault and Agamben, particularly in relation to prisons and camps. His point is not to emphasize the becoming-human of the European that an agentive rational subject might aspire to – the kind resulting in the brief discharge of women legislators during Trump’s speech — but rather the enfleshment of genres of the human left out of that drama (2).
Weheliye describes habeas viscus as, “The conjoining of flesh and compound habeas viscus brings into view an articulated assemblage of the human (viscus/flesh) borne of political violence, while at the same time not losing sight of the different ways the law pugnaciously adjudicates who is deserving of personhood and who is not (habeas)” (11). Emphasizing the material and the physical, Weheliye addresses aspects of Foucault’s work on prisons indebted to thinkers like Angela Davis while arguing that racialized assemblages precede and inform the prison structures he is so famous for analyzing.
Racialized assemblages were active tropes in last week’s speech, including the pronounced display of cosmopolitan unity of a group of women made up of diverse dressed, ironically, in white. Still, it was the framing within democratic liberalism’s discourse on identity that controlled the aesthetic dialogue between what was said and how people dressed and gestured. More pronounced were Trump’s overt gestures toward Jewish people and African Americans.
The tropological reaction-formations that thematized Trump’s speech largely responded to categories academics will be familiar with in terms of Inclusive Excellence rhetoric, which is an indication that liberal rhetoric is framing his discussion, even if the president is not “progressive.” In this sense, it is important not to confuse liberalism as an economic frame including both democrats and republicans with the loose use of “liberal” as synonymous with “progressive.”
What the discursive framing of the speech ought to indicate for those who think of themselves as “on the left” is the co-optation of their values into platitudinous statements. I am reminded of Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” which fueled the activism of late 1960s radicals – who of course no longer seem radical.
This sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested. The political locus of tolerance has changed: while it is more or less quietly and constitutionally withdrawn from the opposition, it is made compulsory behavior with respect to established policies. Tolerance is turned from an active into a passive state, from practice to non-practice: laissez-faire the constituted authorities. It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.
Of course, we know part of the irony at work here is that Trump’s rhetoric tapped into populist manifestations of intolerance, and it is the continuing presence of his attempts to entertain those constituencies that make them all-the-more cartoonish when they erupt, such as the inadequate attempt to butter-up the women in white before a ridiculous statement on late-term abortion.
Such strategies pale in comparison to the much more calculated rhetoric of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, wonderfully analyzed by Philip Eubanks and John D. Schaeffer a while back. Bush’s speech had discharge due to the kairotic post 9/11 moment. And he effectively employed his rhetorical power by building up the crowd and then dropping the “bomb” that he was going to ask Congress for the largest increase in military spending in history.
If one watches that speech closely one will see some frightened looks on democrats’ faces in the midst of standing and applauding Bush, but they cannot do anything politically but support him in that moment. We see increasing displays of division in State of the Unions since then, accompanying massive depoliticization and increase in neoliberal forces.
Intolerance manifests in the political void where distinctions between left and right break down, as insurrection and rebellion. This is aestheticized as post-1968 discussions of “the event” by thinkers like Alain Badiou with his “communist hypothesis.” But irrelevance of left-right metaphors in liberal-democratic politics has also long been argued by Alain de Benoist, whose nouvelle droite essays were published as a collection by Telos Press last year as Democracy and Populism.
The collection does much to counter many flat-footed assumptions that “leftist” thinkers often make, showing an intellectual capable of more nuanced historical precision quite distant from the cartoonishly bombastic Le Pens, something that surprised even Paul Piccone, the founder of Telos. And while I certainly cannot get on board with his defenses of “empire” over “nation” and against “universalism” or “world-state,” (25) his descriptive attention to too loosely used charges of fascism do much to help Americans understand the political vortex in France that Carl Raschke discussed on this website with the Yellow Vests last month.
My point in bringing de Benoist and Badiou into a discussion that began with the 2019 State of the Union is to assert that there is indeed intellectual discourse that persists along “left-right” lines less cartoonish than American politics if one is willing to consider the sibling of the United States’ Enlightenment project.
Trump clearly tried to gesture toward World War II soldiers to publicly distance himself from charges of anti-Semitic, far-right influence. This was an implicit identification of the U.S. with Western European liberal democracies, tinged with the religious glory of his reference to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s crusade. In doing so, he gestured toward the “greatness” of a nation that could celebrate its postwar victory while minimizing the unending wars of “Infinite Justice” and “Enduring Freedom.”
These are the wars of the neocon-neoliberal vortex that produced contradictory claims between the George W. Bush Whitehouse aid who famously told Ron Susskind, “We’re an empire now” in 2004 while Donald Rumsfeld later assured Al-Jazeera,“The United States is not in the business of empire; we don’t do colonies.” Susskind’s article had heavily criticized the irrational and “faith-based,” gut feelings that drove G. W. Bush.
Many will remember the ways rationality versus “faith” and irrationality operated in public discourse of the first decade of the 21st century. Obama’s measured elocution aestheticized the dignity and perseverance necessitated by historically marginalized groups who have had to “wait their turn” to be included in American democracy, but we must remember — and as activist campaigns against post-racism rhetoric remind us — that this was in some ways a conservative gesture, hearkening back to Enlightenment values. That we were going to be alright as opposed to Kendrick Lamar’s “we gon’ be alright.”
Last week, Trump was invoking the glory of past victories in the context of claiming the imminent removal of troops from the Middle East as he is sending more and more to the southern U.S. Border and choosing to recognize Juan Guaidó over Nicolás Maduroas rightful president in Venezuela. U.S. news is traditionally quiet concerning the union’s hegemonic role in South and Central America.
Americans should be more attentive to the shifting of the military gaze toward the nation’s south, where the recent pink tide has become increasingly mimetic of Trump’s rhetoric. The militarization of borders is no sign of a new “post-war” period where diagnoses of post-traumatic-stress has increasingly been symptomatic of both soldier and citizen alike. Here again, “race” seems to be the operative identity category, a construction long-supported by Anglo-Saxonist “Black Legend” stereotypes of colonial Spain’s mismanagement of Empire.
But when Americans only focus on the domestic issues of racism, framed by a discussion of slavery layered within the debate on federal and states rights that founded the nation and later drove it to civil war, they often aesthetically and affectively employ Enlightenment progressivism which is itself exceptionalist, elitist, and exclusive. These discussions are rightfully suspicious of some human rights discourse, but they cannot ignore world politics and antagonistic American foreign policy initiatives.
Uncritical progressivism masks the pretensions to universalism of reason mask the material history, what Marx called the “prior accumulation of capital.” As Vincent Harding et al. narrate in The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, during the first half of the twentieth century, after the Republican party had ceased to be associated with “negroes” — something the Democratic Party was quite comfortable with criticizing at the time, as the racist image below attests — communism seemed like a political option for many African Americans.
The development of pan-Africanist ideas spoke both to what we would later call “globalization” and to the shared discrimination that people of African descent had faced in the exploitation of capitalist accumulation. As Harding notes, African Americans were asked to “take a back seat” to the larger communist cause during the Second World War, creating a wedge that would be exploited by progressivist rhetoric in the post-war and emergent Cold War, where to save face against the Soviet’s critiques of the United States’ treatment of African Americans, an opening was made in discourse to hear the arguments that people like Thurgood Marshall had been carefully crafting for twenty years.
My point is that when we ignore the international stage and only focus on the “closed group” of the domestic inequities that persist in the face of progressivist attempts to see us all as implicitly “white, rational, capacious, humans” we miss the ways that those inflections are historically informed, no matter how well-intentioned those people want to feel. Simultaneously, of course, rhetoric of equality is not the same thing as rhetoric addressing inequity — but we must always be critical of the “gaze” by which these values present themselves.
As feminists like Nancy Fraser have powerfully argued, the “worker” in liberal democratic logic, has long been implicitly gendered as masculine. And as David Roediger details in Wages of Whiteness, the development of the “white working class” in the 19th century owed its identity first to the development of “Race” and “culture” to justify displacement of Natives for westward expansion, and then to the increasing fear that newly freed slaves would “steal” their jobs. Thus, a particular Anglo-Saxonist inflected rhetoric employed by founders like Thomas Jefferson against the “Norman yoke” — an importation of English resistance to French invaders now more explicitly racialized — came to win out as the benefits of “whiteness” actively separated Irish immigrants from African Americans.
Racialized assemblages thus come to inflect the tropological commonplaces of both politics and our ontologies because such rhetoric over time shapes the policy decisions that affect actual people. It is not a question of their imaginary nature. They are aestheticized constructions, and when people do not learn about aesthetics (in all of the discussion’s flawed history), they are unable to articulate well how injustices prevail.
Again, those familiar with university discourse in the U.S. will be aware of the well-intentioned ways we try to attend to difference and diversity against the logically-flawed and flattening rhetorics of universalism in the banality of “all lives matter” rhetoric. Attention to nuance, equity and historical inequity, the richness of multiple perspectives and backgrounds for learning, are valued over unchecked assumptions that social problems will somehow automatically improve over time. These discussions have produced the familiar categories at work in the discursive frame of even Trump’s speech.
And so another way Trump used liberal-democratic identity-category framing to posture as magnanimous was toward incarcerated African Americans willing to submit to the Protestant ethic. He combined this with anti-abortionist pandering to the Christian right.
This pandering occurs amid an exodus of white evangelicals from the immoral politics of backing Trump, as evidenced by the former president of the American Academy of Religion, David Gushee’s, weak 2018 convention address in which he comes to the extremely belated “revelation” that racism might be a problem among evangelicals.
I myself admit to the progressivist rhetoric informing my own identity as I sat ashamed that so many scholars of ethics and religion had to sit in witness to a white man announcing and repenting publicly that he had finally read African American literature — a sort of “no shit, Sherlock” and “better late than never” accompanied my embarrassment that this president was held up as exemplary of what the discipline of religious studies had to offer.
The exhaustion of such displays of Protestantism that seek a pass in the form of forgiveness for the wrongs of history, a “we’re all equal now” reset button, is indicative of the ways European Christianity informed the so-called “secularism” of the Enlightenment, and one should seek in the lineage of the aestheticized idea of the rational subject “risen” out of nature, Hegel’s “beauty born again,” the universalism that Alain Badiou identifies as part of Saint Paul’s project, or at least the version of it transformed into European ideas of “civilization.”
Fatigue, however, is also marker of the so-called secular “left” in the U.S. Smaller turnouts Women’s Marches this year are accompanied by rhetorics of exhaustion arising from the self-deception of movements like occupy in a more recent book by Alain Badiou. Badiou blames the failures of Occupy and the Arab Spring on the “absence” and “hostility to politics” indicated by “extremely negative” unifying slogans, “lack of broad temporality,” and “terminology borrowed from the enemy.” If we are to cast a glance back at his own generation, we might be wary of the fiftieth anniversary of the “summer of hate.”
Traditionally “left”-leaning presses like semiotext(e) evidence the exhaustion as well. Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s Breathing reflects on recent movements’ failures. He writes,
Identity (national and otherwise) reemerges at this juncture, after the impotent rebellion of many populations against the global submission of reason to the market. But this identitarian reaction is based on a double-delusion. First of all, cultural identity is a construct based on the baroque combination of decaying global traits. Secondly, national sovereignty cannot be restored without breaking the integration of economic exchange and entering a global state of war. Indeed, this is actually what is happening now: war is breaking out everywhere, and slowly the map of the world is turning into a web of intractable conflicts. (118)
These words are strikingly similar to Alain de Benoist’s nouvelle droite argument in a 2004 Telos article titled, “On Identity.” As Russell Berman and Timothy Luke write in their introduction to de Benoist’s essays, “Liberal democrats routinely denounce dictators, but they are only prepared to accept ‘the will of the people’ when it reflects choices authorized by professional experts, who are tacitly assumed to lean toward liberal democracy” (xvii).
Other recent semiotext(e) books such as Sayak Valencia’s Gore Capitalism prognosticate that places like Tijuana and violent drug cartels are indicative of what will shortly be arriving in “late capitalism” of elite nations like the U.S. One could see a Trump-leaning argument relying on a “left”-leaning book like this. Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, published by the same press, laments the failures of recent movements but offers insightful analyses of municipal failures in U.S. cities.
Wang appropriately ties these moves both to the financialization of public debt making politicians more accountable to creditors and the push-pull rhetoric of the War on Drugs. Her arguments echo excellent historical work by Jordan Camp and Elizabeth Hinton. As Hinton writes in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime,
In the century between the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 and Johnson’s call for the War on Crime, a total of 184,901 Americans entered state and federal prisons. During just the two decades between the passage of the Law Enforcement Assistance Act and the launch of Reagan’s War on Drugs, the country added 251,107 citizens to the prison system. The American carceral state has continued its rapid growth ever since, so that today 2.2 million citizens are behind bars – representing a 943 percent increase over the past half century. (5)
Hinton notes that the U.S. houses 25% of the world’s imprisoned while only having 5% of the world’s population, and “states like California and Michigan spend more money on imprisoning young people than on educating them.” Trump’s claims to his release of a few African Americans as evidencing the values of the American Dream and the Protestant ethic: work your way off death row! Just don’t forget to have faith.
While fatigue and failure are thematic in the traditionally left-leaning discourses, there is among that writing a frequent return to literature for re-energizing politics. We see this in Simon Critchley, Badiou, Berardi, and Wang. In the U.S. there has been a recent explosion of African American literature speaking to these issues.
I believe that accounting for this literature relies on attending to the racialized assemblages that Alexander Weheliye criticizes Foucault and Agamben for missing. I also believe that despite the co-optation that one sees in Trump’s use of liberally connoted identity categories and both the “left” (Berardi) and “right” (de Benoist) claims to the archaic and increasingly uselessness of identity claims that thinkers inattentive to the literary and aesthetic discussions present among recent African American writers wrongly relegate such works to liberal-democratic political frames.
Critical theorists attentive to the banality of identity frames that have been co-opted by politicians to fuel the reverse of what they emerged to represent also need to be aware of ways Enlightenment rhetoric aestheticizes discourse, creating moments of what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro calls moments of “equivocation,” where two groups agree on the same language but mean entirely separate things. Just as academics need to be aware that institutionalized use of identity categories, the language of Inclusive Excellence, outdated conceptions of multiculturalism, etc. entered a power arena that depoliticizes and repoliticizes, a vortex of sorts.
As my Osage friend and mentor, Tink Tinker, reminds me constantly, white people often want to get rid of “race” now that its discourse no longer benefits their claims to exceptional status. So, whose game are we really playing if we merely write off the ways identity categories have been co-opted by regressive politics and neoliberal agendas? And do we really need to await a new Solzhenitsyn to articulate the ways advanced capitalism employs prisons not merely to eradicate political dissidents but to employ their enfleshment to the benefit of capital?
This is why, despite Trump’s use of racialized assemblages to frame his speech and the co-optation of once progressive rights talk, we must attend to a different frequency long-employed by African American art that is often miscategorized as merely nationalistic and socially progressive. Such was the controversy among many jazz musicians twenty years ago over the nationalistic tones accompanying Ken Burns’s otherwise brilliant and award-winning documentary, Jazz, which downplayed 1960s reactions to the habilitated forms of social progress celebrated by American liberalism.
Grounded in the historical ownership of past oppression rather than a whitely rhetoric of exclusive exceptionalism that implicitly appeals to an elatedly civilized, rational, and masculine citizen-subject, we need to situate criticism of the liberal elitism that informed Clinton’s talk of “deplorables” tempered with the impulses to closed-group discharges that inspired the invention of whiteness as a racialized assemblage that implicitly coded one’s access to money and power.
In the same way, discourse on the critique of neoliberalism needs to be attentive to the ways it equivocates with “post-race” rhetoric and thus gets maligned, especially by academics, for dismissing the institutional language that has, of course, increasingly been fueled by neoliberal, market-driven, flattening tendencies. Such an approach would help alleviate the cruel optimism of neoliberal academics who think they are progressive by merely attending to discursive features set forth by the American Association of Colleges and Universities.
Beyond the politics of integration alone, it would signal attention to a reframing of the “runaway slave,” as long-time activist Ruby Sales recently noted with respect to maroons, not as criminal but as a political activists who started a social movement. How do we reframe the “fugitive” with respect to Trump’s answer to international crises is the strategy “to outspend and out-innovate” others?
Are we really supposed to accept poor bait and switch tactics and conflations of “school choice,” “childhood cancer,” and innocent children “ripped from womb” by New York doctors and a Virginia governor who wanted “to execute a baby”? What hind of “human” is at work in the prohibition of late-term abortion supported by those aspiring to “human dignity”? What kind of perverse metalepsis is at work when we move from “children in holy image of god” to “american security”? If we need “to reignite the American imagination,” what is the frame that houses such discursive moves?
Jason DeSanto is right to point out the victim imagery, just as Antony Alumkal is right to draw on Richard Hoftstadter’s analysis of the “paranoid style” of American politics in his Paranoid Science: The Christian Right’s War on Reality. The argumentative weaknesses in Trump’s speech flare up when they are precisely most weak, seeking discharge whether it be from mindless chanting or women in white — a destabilizing of all positions. And yet, I continue to wonder as I consider Weheliye’s other genres of humanity: what is the deep frame that holds all of this together in the first place and is that the kind of “human” I want to be? And what will our aesthetics be?
Roger K. Green is a senior lecturer in English at The Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is the author of the forthcoming A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics and numerous short articles in Political Theology Today. He is general editor of The New Polis and currently pursuing a second PhD. in the Joint Doctoral Program in Theology and Religious Studies at The University of Denver.